Subway Photography


Arts & Culture

Working with words is how I’ve made my living, but becoming a photographer has been a longtime fantasy, fed by the vinaigrette smell of the chemistry in the college darkroom, the monographs in the library upstairs, and all the museums and galleries and bookstores I’ve visited in the decades since. The more amazing work I saw, the more shy I became about picking up a camera, so this fantasy was sublimated into writing about photography, even writing about writing about photography.

The pictures that speak to me most are street photographs. I wanted to be a surreptitious chronicler of urban life, like Henri Cartier-Bresson or Helen Levitt or Elliott Erwitt. Street photography took off with the Leica, a groundbreaking portable camera introduced in 1925 that used the same 35-mm film manufactured for motion pictures. By the time I became aware of street photography, its golden age—its culturally decisive moment, so to speak—was behind us. To practice street photography at the end of the twentieth century seemed like nostalgia.

Nostalgia may be the essence of all photography—it is, after all, the act of preserving a slice of the present before it irretrievably slips into the past. (Insert your favorite Barthes or Sontag quote here.) It has also become the counterintuitive propellant behind a school of smartphone photography. Hipstamatic, which launched in 2009, put a picture of a compact film camera onto the touchscreen of the iPhone. The textured black plastic shell of the “camera” recalled the LOMO LC-A I bought for a hundred roubles, or about three dollars, on a trip to Leningrad in 1991. I wasn’t the only one who saw the quirky imperfections of late-Soviet manufacturing as a feature rather than a flaw; the same year, some Viennese students discovered LOMOs in Prague and, the following year, founded the Lomographic Society International. Hipstamatic simulated a variety of vintage lenses, flashes, and film for less than I paid for a LOMO.

In October of 2010, Hipstamatic was well on its way to becoming Apple’s app of the year when Instagram launched, with its square frame and a familiar collection of filters. It seemed like a Hipstamatic knockoff, but I had just gotten an iPhone and Instagram was free. I posted my first photograph on Instagram on a visit to Los Angeles, at the end of a run in Griffith Park. You can see the observatory, the one from Rebel Without a Cause, through a filter that has the faded colors and gummy borders of an old Polaroid Land camera print. Looking back now, I see layers of unearned nostalgia and, at the top of the frame, the edge of my finger.

I wasn’t sure what to do with Instagram. I filtered a couple of pictures of my son, then made my account public and decided didn’t want to share pictures of my children with whoever might end up following me. The filters, it turned out, were misdirection, masking an ingenious social network built around photo sharing from mobile phones. Like other networks, Instagram piggybacks on the connections you have already amassed on Facebook and Twitter and in your e-mail address book. It’s easy to find people on Instagram, but you must post from the Instagram app on a mobile phone. (Before the day last month when Instagram released an Android version and a million new users signed up, only iPhones could post photos.)

Then, about a year ago, I was on the Q train on the way to work, standing over a man in a suit reading a book in Hebrew. Next to him, on the other side of the pole, sat a second man in a leather jacket reading in Arabic on his phone. It was an urban moment I recognized, the sort of moment captured in street photographs. The Q was crossing the Manhattan Bridge, so there was plenty of light, and I snuck a picture using my iPhone. The text is too small to make out, so my caption explained what was happening. Two people liked it (on Instagram, as on Facebook, you can like something by pushing a button)‚ and two others commented on it.“Peeping Tom?” one of them asked.

Maybe, but am I really any more of a Peeping Tom than the young Cartier-Bresson? Today his photographs are in museums, but when Henri picked up a Leica, he was an aspiring French painter who made himself more inconspicuous by blackening the metallic parts of his camera body. His artistic training allows him to situate his work in an aesthetic tradition, just as I’m trying to do, but it’s fundamentally eavesdropping, the visual counterpart to Metropolitan Diary items and Overheard in New York.

Ever since that fateful morning on the Manhattan Bridge, I’ve been taking photographs on my daily commute and whenever I take the subway. I observe people reading the Bible and Biker Chick; I watch them solve the Times crossword and sudoku; I catch them eating lettuce. I notice their outfits, their bags. I marked the death of Steve Jobs (left). The subway can be desolate, or you find yourself on top of strangers, looking down at their heads, their hands inches away. This must be what everyone notices, or tries not to notice, when you ride the subway; I just take a picture.

It turns out there is a whole subgenre of street photography taken on the subway, which is covered in two chapters of Tracy Fitzpatrick’s 2009 survey, Art and the Subway. Bruce Davidson photographed openly, but Arthur Leipzig hid his camera in a pet carrier. Helen Levitt used a right-angle viewfinder. Stanley Kubrick, on assignment for Look, tried it. And Walker Evans hid his Contax under his coat and shot blind, through a buttonhole, beginning in 1938—inspired, Fitzpatrick surmises, by the poem “Rapid Transit,” by his collaborator James Agee:

Squealing under city stone
The millions on the millions run,
Every one a life alone,
Every one a soul undone

Evans did not publish any of them until 1956. A decade later, he showed them at MoMA and published them as Many Are Called, with an introduction by James Agee. In 1962, Evans explained why he waited so long to show them:

The portraits on these pages were caught by a hidden camera, in the hands of a penitent spy and an apologetic voyeur. But the rude and impudent invasion involved has been carefully softened and partially mitigated by a planned passage of time.

Instagram does not soften or mitigate. On the contrary, I photographed a stranger and one of my followers started to imagine her life; the stranger turned out to be a former coworker of someone I know. I’ve always wondered whether the subjects of street photographers ever saw the pictures they unwittingly made famous. What, for example, did the man and woman in this Garry Winogrand photograph think? Would Walker Evans ever have combined street photography with a social network?

When I’m not taking pictures on the subway, I like to look at the pictures of people I follow. You scroll through them, focussing on one at a time. I try not to like their pets, their meals, airplane wings seen from the window seat, or sunsets. But in weak moments I have posted a picture of a sunset just because I knew someone would like it, and I would like getting a like. Instagram is a social network, but it also sits on the same screen as casual games like Angry Birds or Words with Friends—what Sam Anderson unfortunately called “stupid games.” All social networks, online and off, have this gaming dimension. Before Mixel, before Draw Something, Instagram was pictures with friends.

Instagram has features I don’t use. The filters I touch less and less. There’s a built-in camera, but I prefer QuickPix, which has a fast shutter, or, if there are people behind me, SpyPic, which hides the view through the camera behind a partly opaque fake article or solitaire hand, and touching the screen anywhere triggers the shutter. (I’ve wanted to make an iPhone camera that combines the best of these two apps, and is optically optimized for the light conditions and short focal distance of subway cars.) And I don’t know what to make of the Instagram community as a whole. The popular page is dominated by sexy teenagers, cute animals, banal blocks of text with typography that would give most designers an ulcer (“i love it when i hear lyrics that totally apply to my current situation“”had more than six thousand likes), and anything by members of Instagram’s suggested-users list.

Tyson Wheatley, who works for CNN from Hong Kong, is also a suggested user and a frequent presence on the popular page. His best pictures capture the awe of Hong Kong’s overwhelming architecture and natural beauty. When he moved there from Atlanta, in January 2011, he planned to document his adventures with his new Nikon digital SLR. But it was much easier to use his iPhone and share photographs through Instagram to the social networks he already used. He helped organized a monthly Instameet, which introduced him to other people in Hong Kong and to parts of the city he would never have discovered. Wheatley has made friends around the world. He likes Grizzly Bear. The band’s lead singer, Ed Droste, uses Instagram, and he follows Tyson Wheatley. “He said, ‘I’m planning to come to Hong Kong, let’s get together,’” Wheatley said. “I love this person’s music, but I never expected to meet him.”

I have never paid to use Instagram, and the old Internet saw is that, when something is free, you are the product, not the customer. After Instagram announced that Facebook was acquiring it for a billion dollars in cash and stock, I felt a little like I’d been bundled off to an owner whom I’ve never really trusted with my photographs. (Or do I? I send my Instagram pictures to Twitter, which sends them to Facebook.) I wasn’t the only one shaken by the news; some posted a black frame in protest, and others vented their rage. Was Facebook paying for the wisdom of Instagram’s developers, to take out the competition, or, as Paul Ford wrote, “the thing that is hardest to fake … sincerity”? Will there be ads in the photo feed? Could Instagram suffer the same neglect as Flickr did after it was acquired by Yahoo!?

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Instagram’s Kevin Systrom offered all sorts of assurances, as CEOs do, but these questions will get answered in time. For now I’m defintely ahead in my transaction with Instagram. “I’ve never considered myself a photographer,” says Wheatley, who has more than eighty-two-thousand followers and can generate four-thousand likes per photograph. “But the more I got into Instagram, it unlocked something that I feel really passionate about.” I don’t have anywhere near the following Wheatley does, but I know what he means. It has unlocked something in me, too. Instagram, and iPhone, and an unlimited-ride Metrocard have made me into a street photographer. The train cars have plastic seats instead of wicker, and the faces are different, but I’m traveling along the same lines as Walker Evans.

Blake Eskin is cofounder of 29th Street Publishing. Follow his subway project on Instagram, Tumblr, or Twitter.